Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Review: Ragamuffin, by Tobias Buckell

(This is a repost of my review that appeared on SF Signal recently - reposted here for posterity)

320 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; First Edition edition (June 12, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0765315076
ISBN-13: 978-0765315076

Buckell's sophomore effort is a mixed bag, with a medley of characters that span the cosmos. You will be wowed on this journey. And then you will be confused. There is a lot going on here.

Maybe I missed the inter-galactic bus here by jumping in at book 2 (Crystal Rain is the predecessor), but I don't think so. The book lacks clear labeling as to being a sequel, and it is apparent in its writing that the author wished for this to stand on its own.

As a whole, it starts strong, alternates in quality and then tries to bring it together at the end but veers wide of perfect wormhole-center.

Despite problems, I see the appeal of Buckell's storytelling: The technology is well conceived and utilized in a setting that is real and gritty. World-building is high quality and interesting in a universe with humanity under the yoke of alien masters. Under the tentacled-heel they rebel, and Buckell explores how these outliers of humanity survive. The rough-edged Ragamuffins refuse to submit, while the brainwashed enforcers of the Benevolent Satrapy--the Hongguo--up the anté in a battle that quickly escalates and reaches a head (in what I can only call too convenient in timing to fully swallow).

My biggest qualm is character, though it is clear from some chapters that Buckell can get inside their head like the cybernetic implants that abound in his story. Other times, he loses sight of their personality to serve an element of story.

Nashara is a self-centered bad ass and the central character. But then she becomes a total softy for a girl that serves no purpose. For someone that has read the story, you may call me heartless; but what point does that entire storyline serve, other than to show the Satrap's disregard for life--believe me, I was already well aware. Buckell could have still docked the ship and retrieved the much needed fuel (bloody battle and all) without any need of getting the girl or her brother. Maybe he wanted to show Nashara's humanity. But what made Nashara most human was her willingness to sacrifice herself (and others--remember, she's a bad ass) for a people she had no way of knowing still existed.

Then there is the grammar. I am no expert and feel grammar is my weakest point, but there ARE mistakes. It wouldn't have bothered me as much, except for the Carribean dialogue that compounded it all. The author pays homage to the dialect with an amount of fervor that doesn't do the story justice. The odd word order, in a substantial portion of the dialogue, just ripped me out of the story. But that's me. I like a flavor of a dialect in my stories, not an entire dish and certainly not the whole meal.

When it came to the final conflict, there was a snag that had the Ragamuffins up against the very edge, the clock laughing at them and humanity's future on the brink. I should have been chattering my teeth in dreadful anticipation of who would live or die and if anyone would survive the day at all, but you know what? I didn't. This was THE climactic scene, but what ruined it was that it was rushed through and not given the chance to breathe and be its own. It just felt like a rehashing of events that had already occurred. I didn't feel present in those scenes. There was no sense of urgency. No peril. So, as a climax to the book: it failed.

For moments of goodness and technology that intrigued I give this a halting 3 stars. Given time and proper page space I think Buckell can turn out a much better read. I'll read another, have no doubt, but for now it's on to something else.


  1. Thanks for such a thorough, thoughtful review. I think I'll keep an eye on Buckell's work in the future.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I hear that Crystal Rain is better than Ragamuffin, so I wonder if I shouldn't go back and check that one next.


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